A week or two ago, I was watching a movie On Demand and switched back to network television. It was a crime show, and I happened to come into a scene that featured a man discovering the dead body of a woman who had been murdered. She had clearly died violently. The depiction was violent and deeply offensive to me.
What immediately came to me was, if that that same woman had been alive and naked, it would have been censored. Because, you know, the living flesh of a naked woman (or even worse, full frontal nudity of a man!) is far more likely to undermine the fabric of our society than gallons of blood leaked by a corpse staring at the heavens.
Here is my rant: violence is twisted humanity. Sex is normal. Why have we reversed these two ideals in our popular culture, and in literature? How could sex possibly be more dangerous than gruesome violence?
When I wrote my first mainstream novel, No Place Like Home, I confessed to my editor that I had been worried about the love scenes in the book. She laughed and said, “Everybody likes sex.”
But it seems quite difficult for writers to tackle love scenes. On Facebook, I saw a writer bemoaning her editor’s request to add a love scene, and it made me start thinking this even more.
Why is sex such a challenge for writers? Many reasons. Self-consciousness, a lack of confidence, a lack of study and discussion of good sex scenes, a fear of being judged.
Certainly not every book requires sex. Probably most do not, though I have not yet written that book myself. Many writers are not writing about people kissing, much less getting down to the serious business of sex. All that is fine.
But if a book turns in some way on the relationship between lovers, especially lovers who have only begun to know each other, or lovers who are falling away from each other, sex is an important part of the way they relate to each other. I have often felt that a writer closed the bedroom door because he didn’t know how to get a sex scene on the page without it sounding like grade c porn (which it often does, unfortunately). While it is legitimate to be flummoxed about it, fear is not a good reason to avoid writing sex. A fear that all sex is porn, and it is not. The discussion would take too long and isn’t the point of this blog, but there is a difference between sex scenes in novels and porn, which is titillation for the sake of titillation. (And I have nothing against that, at all. It’s just not the same.)
Sex, like every other action in a novel, can be a very powerful addition to the writer’s toolbox (no pun intended). It can reveal character, underline themes. One of the best sex scenes I can remember reading was by Jennifer Crusie in Faking It. It’s bad sex, because it takes forever and the protaganist is working very hard, but it’s very good writing because it underlines the theme of the book, and character and the real work of relationships.
So, how can you write better sex scenes? Here are some tips.
#1 It’s not about you.
This is not about your sexual desires and fantasies, but about the relationship between your characters. What can you show us about them in this scene? How do their actions here show us who they are in relationship to each other? What hidden things are revealed? What hidden things become more hidden?
#2 Forget about your children, grandmother, father, significant other. It’s not about them, either.
This is a stumbling block for a lot of us. You don’t want to write anything that will make it impossible for you to hold your head up within your circle, but what you think might shock Grandma might not. My late mother-in-law was a Church of God Christian of the old school, and I was terrified of what she would think when she read the love scenes in the romance novels I was writing at the time. “Child,” she said to me when I said she could skip those parts, “where do you think my six children came from?”
On the other hand, I have had the opposite experience, especially with The Lost Recipe for Happiness. Some readers complained about explicit sex, and so did my ordinarily pretty accepting mother. The reaction surprised me and, I will admit, made me question my choices. The sex is more explicit and more present than in most of my books—but there is a very good reason why. Elena is a woman who has been lost in her world of ghosts for twenty years. The book is about her letting go and coming back to live in this world. It’s a very sensual book on every level—food, pain, touch, sight (it is set in Aspen, one of the more gorgeous places on the planet). The food descriptions are erotic, the sex is erotic. I stand by the choice I made. It’s a lusty book and lusty sex was required.
#3 Sex should move the story forward, like every other scene in the book.
Sex for the sake of sex has no place in any novel. Every sex scene should move the story action forward. There should be more information revealed that we have not had. It can be a bonding scene or a furious scene, or whatever you need, but it needs to be about more than sex.
#4 Use the language of your characters and novel to describe the action.
A middle aged oilman isn’t going to use flowery language in bed (or would he? Is this a place he lets down his guard?). A woman new to sex probably won’t use crude terms. What language would your characters use to refer to sex and actions? If you are writing an elegantly poetic story, the language needs to be similarly poetic and metaphorical here. If you’re writing a thriller full of blood and gore, the language in the sex scenes needs to be just as gritty and realistic as in the rest of the book. Don’t break tone. Don’t break mood.
#5 Avoid coy language
Related to the above. One of the problems of writing elegant sex scenes in English is the clunky awkwardness of terms. The lexicon of inimate body parts are clunky and unappealing for the most part. The trick is to be real and right in the minds of your characters.
#6 You don’t have to describe every beat
Endless details are really not terribly interesting in a novel, not just endless details about sex, but about anything. If I describe the process of baking bread, I would not tell you every single second of the process. Hit the highlights, use the scene to express mood and a change in the narrative.
#7 Have some fun with it
This is not some dire assignment. Try to have some fun with it. Write a raw version, and then go back and polish, as you would with any other scene. That’s the point, really. Sex scenes are just another scene in your book. Learn to write them well.
Have you struggled with this process? Did I miss a tip you would like to share?